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Detroit Sanitation Worker Is Keeping His City Clean During Pandemic

Calvin Taylor picks up the city's debris and works to stop illegal dumping

Sanitation worker Calvin Taylor photographed in Detroit
Calvin Taylor, 58, is a refuse-collection-packer operator for the city of Detroit.
Nick Hagen

My job depends on people not doing the right thing. I work in solid waste for the Detroit Department of Public Works — have for 31 years. There's a lot of trash around, and I clean up after people who dump illegally.

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"I’m no hero, though maybe my truck is."

— Calvin Taylor

COVID-19 has forced a lot of our people out of work. Many of my colleagues are out sick right now. We're tested, and the people who have positive tests can't come back to work until they test negative. One manager's husband died from COVID-19. So I'm handling her job. I work as a temporary foreman, handing out the paperwork that lists the locations we need to clean up. I pass out masks and gloves every morning.

We work log loaders, front-end loaders and knuckle-boom trucks to pick up tons of debris and take it away. It's one of the few government jobs left for solid-waste workers. Private companies took over regular trash pickup after Detroit went bankrupt in 2013. Those companies won't pick up trash from a vacant address, but we will. We don't have a profit motive. Our only motive is keeping the city clean.

We see it all: old furniture, rugs, construction debris. One time, some people pulled up right behind me as I was talking with my supervisor on the phone. They started throwing old TVs over a fence onto a vacant property. On another day there was this guy emptying his trailer out on the street as I was sitting there in my city sanitation truck. He motioned to me to come clean it up. People try to report the illegal dumpers in the act so we can catch them and make them stop. But I can't stop anyone from dumping. It could become unpleasant if I confronted them.

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I'll be going back to the truck once people come back to work. I'm no hero, though maybe my truck is. It does all the heavy work. I do my job to make the city cleaner. There are about 15 guys who do this job. I'm just one of them.

— As told to Michael Anft

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Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

membership-card-w-shadow-192x134

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Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.